On an unseasonably cold Friday night, Bath Rugby faced the Sale Sharks with just one agenda - to win, but with three matches in eight days predominantly in their minds, the team were forced to accept a defeat after an unforgiving encounter at Edgeley Park.
After trailing behind the leading Sharks for the majority of the match, a late try by Jonny Faamatuainu and a conversion by replacement kicker, Jack Cuthbert secured Bath a bonus point and a seat in the top four of the Guinness Premiership as Bath Rugby now move to play both London Wasps and Harlequins next week.
An early penalty gave the Sharks the instant lead, as Charlie Hodgson kicked for three points after a Bath tackler failed to roll away after just four minutes. But Bath responded well, with Ryan Davis making a quick pass to Shontayne Hape who found Andrew Higgins with an offload, taking Bath quickly into their host's territory. Davis returned to the fold last night after almost two entire seasons due to an ACL injury and the fly half was clearly full of the determination needed to make an impact. However, although the visitors attack put rapid pressure on the hosts, a Hodgson clearance made sure that Bath were unable to get across the line for a try.
The Sharks then moved to take a commanding lead after 19 minutes, as Mathew Tait made a break, passing to Mark Cueto who, having been tackled by Nick Abendanon, was able to scrabble over the line for five. Hodgson then missed the conversion, but he made up for the misplaced kick 10 minutes later, offering the Sharks another opportunity for points.
Having booted the ball to the right wing where Michael Stephenson made a quick steal, it looked as though Hodgson had made a fatal error. However, his kick was not made in vain, and the Sharks forced a turnover, whilst the fly half placed himself in a perfect position to go over the white line under the posts. Converting his own try, Hodgson took Sale to an 15-point lead and with the first half nearing its conclusion, Bath were trailing behind without a score.
The final eight minutes picked up the pace for Bath, as Abendanon made a swift pass from the wing to midfield, where his captain, Michael Lipman, was ready to burst through the Sharks defence. Finding Stephenson and Davis, the flanker was able to take credit for some good distance and the West Country contingent looked set to finally score a try of their own. But, Bath were forced to content themselves with three points over five, as repeated offside offences by the Sharks, allowed Davis to kick a penalty just before the half-time whistle.
Bath returned to the pitch with a renewed aggression, inspired by their trailing position and having put instant pressure on Sale, a Shark offence allowed Davis to kick three points from 30 metres. The ball slotted perfectly between the sticks taking Bath to within nine points of the leaders.
However, Bath were prevented from enjoying the marginal reduction in the score divide after a second penalty from Hodgson handed Sale another three points. The kick came following a strong piece of interplay between Abendanon, Cheeseman and Hape, but the Sharks managed to turn the luck to their favour, as they regained possession and charged deep inside Bath's territory. The men in blue may not have been able to cross the line, but the penalty was enough to retain their comfortable lead with 18-6 to Sharks.
As the rain began to pour, Bath attempted to bite back once more, and Davis was given the ball to slot his third successful penalty. This may have taken their score an inch closer to Sale's, but their chance for victory was rapidly ebbing away.
A break from Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe took the breath of the crowds, as he made a rapid sprint down the wing, making a swift pass to Neil Briggs to finish the move. Had Briggs not lost the pass into touch, it would have surely awarded them with a third try. Bath held on and defended well inside their own 22 for a further 10 minutes, but at 72 minutes, Bath could hold off the Sharks no longer and Lobbe bundled over the line to take the Sale lead to 23-9.
Entering the final minutes of the match, Bath finally managed to cross the line in the form of Jonny Faamatuainu after a break from Hape and a charge from David Barnes took the ball to within Sale's 22. Having gone down for a scrum within spitting distance of the try line, Jonny Faamatuainu careered over the line for five points for their first try of the match and with a successful conversion from replacement full back Jack Cuthbert, Bath had managed to drag themselves up to 16 points.
However it was not enough for Bath to claw back into contention for the winning stakes, but it did mean that Bath could at least walk away with a bonus point and a move back up into the top four of the Guinness Premiership - for now. Final score 23-16.
15. Nick McLeod, 14. Mark Cueto, 13. Mathew Tait, 12. Lee Thomas, 11. Oriol Ripol, 10. Charlie Hodgson, 9. Richard Wigglesworth, 1. Andrew Sheridan, 2. Sebastien Bruno, 3. Eifion Roberts, 4. Chris Jones, 5. Brent Cockbain, 6. Jason White, 7. Neil Briggs, 8. JM Fernandez Lobbe
16. Lionel Faure, 17. Stuart Turner, 18. Sean Cox, 19. David Tait, 20. Will Cliff, 21. Rudi Keil, 22. Selorm Kuadey
15. Nick Abendanon, 14. Michael Stephenson, 13. Tom Cheeseman, 12. Shontayne Hape, 11. Andrew Higgins, 10. Ryan Davis, 9. Scott Bemand, 1. David Barnes, 2. Rob Hawkins, 3. Duncan Bell, 4. Justin Harrison, 5. Stuart Hooper, 6. Jonny Faamatuainu, 7. Michael Lipman (c), 8. Daniel Browne
16. Mark Lilley, 17. Aaron Jarvis, 18. Peter Short, 19. Andy Beattie, 20. Mike Baxter, 21. Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu. 22. Jack Cuthbert